GOP senator considering NHTSA reform bill

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The head of the Senate Commerce Committee is considering legislative proposals to reform the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but said he is still not convinced the auto safety agency needs more funding.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chair of the committee that oversees NHTSA, told The Detroit News on Tuesday the agency needs to make changes in the wake of General Motors' delayed ignition recall linked to 111 deaths and the recall of 33.8 million vehicles with potentially defective Takata air bags.

"Part of the issue for NHTSA is just reforming and doing some things differently, and they could actually accomplish their mission — and it's not necessarily an issue of money," Thune said, adding he would be willing to listen to requests for more money. "We've looked at some reforms (for NHTSA)," he said.

He said he could introduce NHTSA reform legislation.

The White House this year proposed tripling funding for NHTSA's defect investigations unit and doubling the number of people in the 50-person office that handled 80,000 consumer complaints last year and hundreds of recall campaigns. Thune said "the White House has not been very visible" on the NHTSA request for more funding.

An internal NHTSA report released Friday said the agency made a series of errors in failing to discover the delayed ignition recall by GM. And a separate NHTSA report suggested that the agency is understaffed. Thune said there is a lot of blame — "there are a lot of folks in this whole twisted web and plenty of blame go around."

"The point now is we have to fix it," Thune said.

The number of initial investigations opened has fallen by 36 percent over the last four years and it now takes 57 percent longer to close an initial investigation. NHTSA ideally needs another 380 people in its defects office, more than six times the current number.

The Senate confirmed a new NHTSA administrator in December, former National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind.

Despite requests for more money, the House refused to budget more for the agency. NHTSA said in a report last week that its budget for defects has fallen by 23 percent over a decade after adjusting for inflation.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, has also been mulling auto safety legislation, but has said he is waiting for separate reviews by the Government Accountability Office and Transportation Department Inspector General's Office.

Thune said the Senate Commerce may have a follow-up hearing on Takata after a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee panel held a hearing last week.